Culture Shock Abroad

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The start of the month saw us once again boarding an Easyjet Airbus and setting off to London for a short work trip.

You would think that after over a year of doing this it would become somewhat routine, and in some ways it has. We still spend the week preceding our trip with feelings split between looking forward to seeing friends and dreading having to re-join the rat-race. Otherwise though, the “culture shock abroad” experience changes every time.

Despite having lived in London for well over a decade before moving to Portugal, the place feels more alien and unfriendly every time we visit. The times we spend with friends and in our old local bar are “just like old times,” but the rest of the time we feel increasingly lost and culture-shocked.

From London to Portugal - the old commute
From London to Portugal - the old commute

Regular walks on Algarve beaches, accompanied by frequent “Bom Dia” greetings and smiles from strangers, have now become our “norm.” This means tube commuting is now a time of bemusement, despite the fact that I was once one of those people hustling along, eyes down, earphones in, staring at a smartphone as if profound answers were contained within.

Although I used to be a Londoner, I now spend the first 48 hours in London getting funny looks from people when I catch their eye and smile – it takes me two days to put my guards back up and build up the requisite amount of background anger and resentment to fit in on the 0830 to Waterloo!

The hardest thing about all of this is that it’s very hard to express these feelings to friends without coming across as a born-again expat hippie, and giving the impression that my view is as simplistic as “London’s crap and Portugal’s great.” That’s not it at all. It’s just that our lives are so much different now.

Culture shock abroad? Out most frequently used train in Portugal
Culture shock abroad? Out most frequently used train in Portugal

I often don’t charge my mobile phone for days after the battery has run out. I always have time to cook healthy food, exercise and, to quote the Center Parcs marketing team, “stand and stare.” Those things have enhanced my day to day existence more than any increase in salary and status ever could have done. So when I notice people on the London commute, looking thoroughly miserable despite their designer clothes and shiny cutting-edge gadgets, I feel nothing but bewilderment.

“How’s Portugal?” is becoming an increasingly difficult question to answer, now that everyone we know is already well versed in the superficialities of the weather, food and drink. We’ve now lived an utterly different culture for long enough that it’s difficult to answer the question without risking causing offence by making honest comparisons. We love it here in Portugal and we would hate to have to go back…..and it’s very hard to say that without it sounding like a condemnation of the lifestyle we left behind.

It’s important for us to remember that WE are the people who moved and, as a result, the people who are going to change as the cynical, hard skin of city life falls away. As time goes on, we are going to have to be careful to ensure that the happiness our new life has brought us doesn’t come across as self-satisfaction, even if it not intended as such.

“How’s Portugal?” Fine thanks.

Photo credits, charbel.akhras Tony Castillo Quero

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8 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. Hiya

    Dont worry, I have never thought you sounded self satisfied in your posts, you have always pointed out the downsides of living in Portugal as well as the many benefits.

    We have been living in London for well over 20 years now (more like forty for my husband) and love it. But we also love our house in Tavira and if we won the lottery would be over as soon as feasibly possible. 🙂 Saz

  2. Hi
    Just discovered your blog and am really enjoying looking back at your entries, especially as you relatively close. Although just winter visitors (apartment in Cabanas) my wife and I feel we have many similar feeling to those you express, and even after a couple of months here we feel the culture shock on our return (not so badly though, as we are both retired).
    My real reason for writing (apart from praising the blog!) is that I am sure that I read one of your entries suggesting a Portuguese cheese substitute for cheddar, but stupidly I didn’t make a note of the name, and now I can’t find the blog, even after searching “cheese”, “cheddar” and “Isla”. It was Isla something! Any chance you could help?
    Hugh (and Chris)

  3. Hi,

    apologies for trying to answer.

    Should be the cheese from “ilha de São Jorge” nos açores (Sº Jorge island in Azores).

    Nice and similar to Cheddar.

  4. Hi Hugh and Chris and welcome to the blog.

    CcoR is right, the cheese you want is Ilha cheese for the Azores.

    Sao Jorge is particularly good and available in mature (3 meses) and extra mature (7 meses) varieties.

    Here’s the post about it


  5. Thanks Ccor and Ed, I will give it a try at the first opportunity

  6. Very nice. After one year of living in Algarve me and my wife have the same feelings when we come back to cities like London or Prague (where we do come from). It really is cultural shock, but mostly it is “weather shock” 🙂

    Greetings from Lagos,
    Tomas and Martina

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